A Homily by Doug Davis and Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached, with a baby alpaca afoot, at the Blessing of the Animals Service
The First Church in Sterling, MA
October 15, 2017
Growing up on a farm, animals have been an integral part of my life since I was a small child and I helped my dad milk cows in our milking barn. And of course they became even more a part of my life in my current line of work at Davis Farmland. When I think of why animals are such a blessing in my life, I have to start with this fact: I believe that being around animals makes us all better humans. I have learned responsibility from animals. I have many animals in my life and it is such a feeling of responsibility and devotion to deliver a newborn baby, to stay up nights nursing or caring for them, to raise, train, watch them grow and mature, give them medical treatment and even sometimes make the tough end of life decisions that we all eventually face with our loving companions. I can only relate it to being a parent to each of them.
Animals have actually taught me how to relate to people better. When you try to truly understand why an animal does what it does, the particular personality of this animal compared to that one, and have a deeper understanding through this wordless communication between species, there is a feeling of being one with our fellow animals, in communion with them. I have always loved the challenge of meeting new animals, observing them and learning through interaction how to care for them better. Just like with God, it takes a willingness to let go of the illusion of control and open yourself up, to truly begin to understand your fellow animals.
For many years I preferred the company of animals and could relate to them better than my human counterparts. Animals are unique: they are willing to share their true spirit with you without any angles, agendas or hidden motives. Their openness and personality can seem so often like a young child’s, but with glimpses of an elder's wisdom. Throughout my life, I have learned to relate to people on a deeper level because of having learned how to relate to animals. I have used this to help me realize that people have all the same wants and needs as many animals and that truly paying attention to people lets me understand, empathize and connect with each person, with or without verbal communication.
This unspoken understanding, devotion to and love of animals makes me feel closer to Nature and to God. It is through this love of my animal friends that I feel my closest comparison to how God must love each of us. We are all his flock and he is devoted to each and every one of us.
The act of blessing is the act of invoking God’s favor upon a person or a creature. Today we invoke God’s favor on all of creation. We praise God in chorus with our animal companions. Today, we bless the animals. We bring them into God’s house, and we raise our voices in concert with theirs. Praise the Lord all the earth!
I love Marilynn Robinson’s story from Gilead of the preacher’s son baptizing barn cats with friends. When the pastor father is asked by the son what would happen if one were to baptize cats, the father answers by saying that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. “That wasn’t really an answer to the question,” he said. “We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats………Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.”
Why do we bless our animals? We think the whole world of them.
And our animals bless us.
I saw a kinda creepy ad this week. I forget what the product was called, but it was essentially an ad for a cat simulator. It was a big fluffy furry headless stuffed animal, about the weight of a cat. You put it in your lap, and it wags it’s tail when you pet it. It also wags it’s tail when you haven’t petted it for awhile. The product says that it is for anxiety, because those of us who have pets know that petting a furry thing that wags its tail helps ease anxiety. So even if you have allergies, or you don’t feel like changing a litter box every week, you too can reap the anti-anxiety benefits of having a (headless) cat to pet. Petting cats and other animals releases that love hormone oxytocin, which helps stave off the depression some of us have to take pills for.
Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of receiving a blessing from it, is a very different thing.
Why do we bless our animals? Because they bless us.
When I was visiting Sue Quinn last year as she lay dying from cancer, I will never forget how her golden doodle, Gracie would lie in her lap, keeping her warm, staring up at her with concern and love. Wherever she went, Gracie would follow. That dog was sent from God to be her angel and comfort.
Why do we bless the animals? Because God has blessed us with our animal companions as angel and comfort.
Every year, when I do this service, I am amazed at the emotion of it. The tears shed when people come forward to light candles for pets who have died. The pure joy in people’s faces when they get to introduce beloved members of the family to their church.
Why do we bless our animals? Because they bless us.
So some of you may think it’s crazy that Puerto Rico is in a humanitarian crisis, and a part of California is burning down, and we may be on the brink of a possible war with North Korea, and we’re over here in Sterling whimsically blessing animals.
Well, we have no other choice. We must celebrate the wonder of creation, especially when it is threatened. Anyone who notices the world, Rebecca Baggett says, must want to save it. We choose to bless this broken world. There is nothing else to do but bless it.
So today, as we worship in chorus with our church family’s animal companions, let us remember to touch everything worth saving with the pure intention of blessing it.
The whole world, and every living creature, deserves a sacrament.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org